The Welsh Female Saint: Patterns within a Social Framework
The Student Researcher, Vol. 2, No. 1, September 2012, 69–77
This article looks at the differences between the patterns of male and female Christian sanctity in medieval Wales. It also considers why the male saints could enjoy a full biography and extensive sphere of activity whereas many female saints were presented as only of interest at the point when their chastity was threatened. Also discussed are a smaller number of Welsh women who managed to obtain sainthood while in a different social niche, that of the virtuous wife of a powerful husband. The social structures that were maintained by the promotion as exemplars of both classes of women are discussed.
Attributes of Welsh Female Saints Our knowledge of the saints of Wales and the wider Celtic world in the post-Roman period is derived from a number of sources. There are oral traditions and parochial dedications, which may show the extent of the cult of the saint. Annals and calendars of feast days may also indicate where a saint was remembered and help to identify saints who appear under slightly varying names. There are to be found allusions to saints in secular literature, such as poetry, where the principal intention is to entertain, but the mention of saints, who were deeply engrained in the early medieval consciousness, is entirely natural. There are also the formal written hagiographies which were produced for inspirational purposes, but also sometimes to strengthen the claims of abbeys or churches for precedence or ownership of land. The existence of a written Life, (vita, if Latin, buchedd, if Welsh), marks out that saint as important and tends to fix the traditions relating to that saint. The number of Lives of Welsh female saints is unfortunately very small. Brigid of Kildare was certainly venerated in a number of places in Wales, for example at Llansantffraid Glan Conwy, and the Vita Sanctae Brigidae of Cogitosus, dating from around 650, provides a very early template for the life of a female Celtic saint. There were also biblical women, such as Anna and Mary Magdalene, and women saints from the Eastern Mediterranean, such as Katherine of Alexandria, who were venerated in Wales, but the earliest vitae of a Welsh-born female saint are the Latin Life of Gwenfrewy, written by Robert Pennant of Shrewsbury and the related anonymous Latin vita of around the same date. The earliest Life written in Welsh relating to a female saint is Buchedd Gwenfrewy, which appears first in a 16th century manuscript, which places it barely in the medieval period.